In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day 2015, ATG is exploring “All Things Irish” for the next couple weeks. We begin with the below feature on Irish American culture. Stay tuned for more!
“It’s amateur hour”, Mr. Bryan O’Connor* says of St. Patrick’s Day. “I mean, I don’t have to display the fact that I’m Irish – leave that for the Italians”; and then added, “See, it’s the Irish sense of humor…we have our issues, but at least we have a sense of humor.”
And humor Mr. O’Connor certainly displayed during our interview, where I sought to debunk his “Irishness” and examine what it means for him to be an “Irish American.”
Born in 1951 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, Mr. O’Connor is, in many ways, your typical 60 year-old Irish American Catholic. The son of a father who worked for the post office and a mother who engaged in various jobs and activities, Mr. O’Connor is roughly 75 percent Irish, with some Scottish – albeit he “wouldn’t admit to” it, he said jokingly.
Although unaware of when or who among his relatives emigrated to America, he affirmed that they came through Canada, as a large majority of Irish Americans did, eventually making their way into the United States.
At a very young age, Mr. O’Connor lived in the heavily Irish populated Dorchester section of Boston before he and his parents moved to the suburb of Weymouth, Massachusetts where he spent the remainder of his youth. Although he did not necessarily grow up living in an Irish enclave, Mr. O’Connor says he was “surrounded with Irish – Irish and Italian” within his larger neighborhood.
And this is just the beginning. As I soon learned, Mr. O’Connor embodies a wide-range of distinctive Irish American characteristics – those which you are likely to read about in history books – and is, to a large extent, representative of the Irish American culture and experience as a whole.
Like many Irish Americans, Mr. O’Connor identifies with his “Irishness” and is proud of his ethnicity. In fact, when asked what it means to him to be Irish, he replied, “Well, I think first and foremost it’s the identity. It’s the identity with something…[i]t is nice to be something.”
But, interestingly enough, Mr. O’Connor voluntary added, “And being Irish, you know, frankly I’m not so sure whether it’s any different than being Italian.”
Throughout the course of our interview, Mr. O’Connor was quick to challenge the notion of something being distinctly “Irish.” For instance, when asked how often he thinks of himself as an Irish American and how aware he is of his Irish heritage, he responded, “I don’t dwell on it. I think about it when I’m with my family, my cousins,” but he again supplemented his statement with, “I don’t know whether that relates directly to being Irish, because I don’t know anything else.”
Similarly, when talking about spending Sunday afternoons and evenings at his grandparents’ house with his cousins, uncles and aunts, he said, “Now, I’m not sure that was an Irish thing anymore than it was all of our Italian friends were doing the same thing.”
In another instance, after confirming that he is proud to be an Irish American and after being asked why, he responded:
…I think there’s a certain resiliency with some or most from an Irish perspective. You know, it never happened to me, but it wasn’t that long ago when the signs of ‘Irish Need Not Apply’ appeared in Boston. So, I think that from that, there is a resiliency. There’s a spirit. To me, there is an inherent desire to move on, pick yourself up…
Mr. O’Connor’s statements offer insight into two prominent attitudes and beliefs that are customary within the Irish American culture. Maureen Dezell, in her book, Irish America: Coming into Clover, writes “…the children and grandchildren of Famine Irish immigrants put a premium on assimilation and American respectability, looking straight ahead, moving forward,” which is reflected in Mr. O’Connor’s connection between identity and resiliency and his “inherent desire to move on” and “pick yourself up.”
Yet, at the same time, his repeated hesitancy to classify something as distinctly Irish is quite characteristic of Irish Americans. For as Dezell pointed out in her book, “the Irish don’t know what makes us different from other Americans because we don’t talk about most of what does.”
This reluctance, in large part, seems to be tied to the guilt and self-effacement that comes from being an Irish American Catholic. For instance, the saying “Don’t get a swelled head” is, as Dezell noted, a “quintessential Irish maxim” and is evident in Mr. O’Connor’s statements that, although reflect a sense of pride, are not overly egotistical and conceited.
In fact, Mr. O’Connor was always quick to modify his statements with, “now this is just my opinion” or “I could be wrong, but…” so as not to elevate himself or come across as “superior.”
This is not entirely surprising, given that emotional reserve and humility are considered virtues in Ireland – virtues that have ostensibly been passed on to future generations of Irish Americans, including Mr. O’Connor, who, although full of pride, certainly showed no sign of “that pernicious, insidious syndrome: the swelled head.”
Like many other practicing Irish American Catholics, the connection between Irish American identity and guilt is specifically strong in the realm of religion. When commenting on the role of the Catholic Church, Mr. O’Connor says:
…the church came from the perspective of guilt, and that’s the framework that a lot of us grew up with…I think there’s a certain cloud over a lot of Irish in that they just, well ‘this is too good to be true, something bad is going to happen’ type attitude. And I think that carries itself through a lot of everyday life, [namely] fatalism.
This statement is reflective of how Irish Americans tend to view the world. After all, as Dezell noted, “…it is no accident that Murphy’s Law – Anything that can go wrong will go wrong – is named for an Irishman.”
On top of this fatalistic attitude, Mr. O’Connor added, “It’s just that you’re always a sinner doing something wrong,” which Dezell also acknowledges when she says that the Irish “tend to assume that anything that goes wrong is the result of their sins.”
Accordingly, the Church and its teachings played a significant role in Mr. O’Connor’s life, influencing his beliefs and actions. Similar to many other Irish American Catholics at the time, Mr. O’Connor grew up going to Mass every Sunday with his family, said his prayers at night, and followed the Catholic Holy days and traditions – largely a result of the “Devotionalism” movement that imposed rituals and orthodoxy among Irish Catholics in the mid-19th century.
But, he added, “…back in those days…the Church was a little bit different in that in my circle, it was frowned upon to go into any other churches. If you went into anything other than a Catholic church, it was not really – [well], it was frowned upon.”
This was, to a large extent, well understood by many Irish Catholics in the 20th century, during a time when Catholics and Protestants were continually engaged in conflict with each other. As Eileen McMahon describes and outlines in her book, “What Parish Are You From?, Catholics not only remained institutionally separate from other religious groups, but were also “instructed to stay away from Protestant churches.”
Similarly, many Irish American Catholics, including Mr. O’Connor, were also instructed to stay away from certain organizations, including the YMCA. When asked why he couldn’t join, Mr. O’Connor replied, “Because it was a protestant organization” and “you just knew [that you weren’t supposed to be associated with that organization] – “that’s just the way it was,” he said.
As Mr. O’Connor made clear, these instructions primarily came from the Church and were rarely questioned by Catholics. For instance, when reflecting on the importance of the church in general, he said, “I’m not sure it was that it was so important as that it was what you had to do – or you’d go to hell.”
He added: “[The instructions were] more dictated from the church than [they were] individually. But, I mean, you still – I didn’t – for one reason or another, go to a YMCA and didn’t go into other churches.”
Such rules and regulations from the Church during this time can best be understood by what McMahon deems as Catholics’ “exclusive mentality toward others.” In fact, when asked about his relations with Protestants and what he was told, Mr. O’Connor replied very matter-of-factly, “To feel sorry for your protestant friends” – a statement inferring the alleged superiority of Catholicism.
Mr. O’Connor did have Protestant friends, however, he, like many other Irish Americans, experienced the tensions and conflicts between the two religious groups.
Today, Catholicism and the Catholic Church remain central to Mr. O’Connor’s Irish identity and play an important role in his life, as it does in the lives of many other Irish Americans. When asked to what extent his Irish identity is tied to Catholicism he replied, “Well those are directly related. The Irish [and] Catholic seem to go like peanut butter and jelly, so I think those are linked, for good or [for] bad.”
However, similar to other Irish American Catholics, Mr. O’Connor, to some extent, has become what Dezell has termed as a “Catholic on his own terms.” For although a lot of his childhood Catholic friends have “gotten away from the Church,” largely due the issue of guilt, Mr. O’Connor continues to go to Mass each Sunday, observes Holy days, and is an active participant in various committees of his church.
However, he also makes his own judgment and moral decisions when it comes to the Catholic Church. He says, “…I don’t feel as though I have to agree with everything that they [the Church] do.” Similarly, Mr. O’Connor has learned to “compartmentalize” in order to continue practicing his faith. He says:
I think [the Church] has done a deplorable job with the scandals. But…this is personal now, but I don’t use that to make a judgment about the Church in general. These are just bad guys, they’re not the Church…I choose not to dwell on the bad guys, because to me they don’t represent the Church…the hierarchy still doesn’t handle it very well, but to me that’s no reason to stop [practicing].
But, although he admits he has a problem with the scandals, he is still steadfast in his faith and says that, “it doesn’t make me feel that there is anything wrong with being Catholic.”
While Mr. O’Connor espouses a more liberal outline when it comes to addressing the shortage of priests – “I don’t understand the Church’s reluctance [to allow priests to marry]…within twenty years, there aren’t going to be any priests…so, you [have to] do something about it” – he holds a slightly more conservative view regarding the changes ushered in by the Second Vatican Council from 1962-1965.
The change that seems to have affected him most is the change in vernacular – that is, how Mass went from being spoken in Latin to English. “Honestly, I’m probably one of the few that really liked the Latin mass and the mystery of it,” he says.
While Mr. O’Connor certainly isn’t alone, he is in the minority. As Andrew Greeley noted in his book The Catholic Revolution: “According to a 1974 study, American Catholics strongly endorsed the Second Vatican Council [and] more than four out of five approved of the new vernacular liturgy.”
Either way, today Mr. O’Connor still likes the old way, “probably,” he says, “from a ceremonial point of view,” and “would not be disappoint[ed] if somebody said, ‘ok, we’re going to change again – we’re going to go back to the old way.’”
Along with a majority of other Irish Americans, Mr. O’Connor is also well aware of the association between Irish and alcohol. Indeed, after asking him a question regarding alcohol, he jokingly said, “Let me put this down” – “this” being a glass of gin.
Although he admits that it is an accurate stereotype, due, to some extent, to the history of Irish immigrants in America, it was rarely something he or his family discussed growing up.
“Unbeknownst to me at the time, my dad was an alcoholic,” he says. “But, having said that, in a general sense, that stuff – it really wasn’t ever talked about….if it existed, at least in my extended family, [it was never mentioned].”
Not only is alcoholism typical in an Irish American family – for as Dezell points out, “88 percent of Irish Catholics in the United States drink beer, wine, or spirits as compared with 67 percent of the overall population” – but silence on the issue is also a distinctly Irish characteristic.
The refusal to confront the issue of alcoholism seems to be intertwined, to some extent, with Irish American’s emotional reserve and silence. Mr. O’Connor touched upon this point in the interview, when he unexpectedly said, “I think the one characteristic, perhaps about an Irish family – and this is going back to when I grew up – is that the Irish aren’t particularly ‘huggy.’”
He added: “And that’s…just the truth. Within the family unit, there just wasn’t a lot of physical contact.” He added: “[It is] not that there wasn’t any love there, but it certainly wasn’t displayed in terms of physical affection.”
Be that as it may, the Irish certainly aren’t cold-hearted and impervious to emotion. As a Democrat, Mr. O’Connor is greatly concerned with philanthropy – more so than with unions, which he acknowledges many other democrats are “heavily into.” When asked what being an Irish American democrat means to him, he replied, with little hesitation:
It basically means taking the position for those that are less fortunate…I think that for me, being a part of the democratic party does try to look out for, not necessarily those that are less fortunate…but, it is just for the working person, for those that have to scrap and eke out a living. I think that’s more what it’s all about – and [to] make sure that the other side doesn’t eliminate or try to eliminate all that is necessary.
Concern for the downtrodden is a central element to the Irish American identity – and seems to come naturally, as an inherent part of being an Irish American.
In fact, concern for the lowly “group” over the affluent individual dates back to the 19th century when poor, unemployed and unskilled immigrants from Ireland arrived in America after the Famine. With little support, “political machines,” such as Tammany Hall, worked to provide services, money and relief to the poor immigrants who had no one else to turn to.
And as for the classic, witty Irish humor? Well, we’ll let that speak for itself:
Me: Is there anything you don’t like about being an Irish American?
Mr. O’Connor: “I don’t get a good tan…[it’s that] Celtic skin.”
*Please note that his name has been changed out of respect for his privacy